• Christie L. Goodman, APR • IDRA Newsletter • February 2018 •
There are many reasons for schools to actively support girls in STEM, particularly in technology. Probably the most-cited reason is the growing demand in the workforce. And it is a compelling motivation. Mitch Resnick, a MIT Media Lab professor says, “Roughly two-thirds of grade school students will end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet” (Merrill, 2017).
We don’t have to look at the distant future to see that the trend has already started: The number of computer-related jobs in the United States is 10 times more than the number of computer science graduates three years ago in 2015 (Kessler, 2017).
With or without a workforce demand, the foundation of our STEM focus must be equity. For example, schools must monitor participation in higher-level courses making sure there is gender balance in STEM classes, including technology and computer science. The IDRA EAC-South can help schools with analysis and strategies to ensure equity in student access.
Inequities in participation cannot be explained away by a supposed lack of girls’ interest. A study by the Girl Scout Research Institute dispels myths about girls and STEM and examines what works for girls who show interest and engage in STEM fields (GSUSA, 2012). The study found that 74 percent of high school girls are interested in STEM subjects. Contrary to past research, this study showed that girls do not lose interest in STEM in middle school. African American and Hispanic girls have high interest in STEM and high confidence, but have fewer supports and less exposure.
While over 90 percent of parents feel opportunities to learn computer science are a good use of school resources, only 40 percent of K-12 principals say their school can offer at least one computer science course, including coding or programming (Google & Gallup, 2016).
Resnick suggests that coding is akin to literacy: “Very few people grow up to be professional writers, but we teach everyone to write because it’s a way of communicating with others – of organizing your thoughts and expressing your ideas. I think the reasons for learning to code are the same… When we learn to code, we are learning how to organize, express and share ideas in new ways, in a new medium” (Merrill, 2017).
For girls like my own daughter, Leslie, the reasons are very personal: “I’ve always liked math. Then I fell in love with coding. When you code, you can create anything! I love seeing all these numbers and letters that don’t make sense to a lot of people but make sense to you, seeing it all come together and make something really cool, is really rewarding.”
Leslie became a founding member of a citywide all-girls coding club, She Code Connect, initiated by Youth Code Jam, a nonprofit in San Antonio that fosters interest in technology by introducing upper elementary through high school students to computer science. The girls came together without first knowing each other. Yet they speak of it as a group where they finally fit in. “I found my tribe,” one girl told her parents. Leslie said, “All of us can work together so well because we have all been discouraged in a class, usually by a male classmate. We understand that much about each other, and we all have something in common to talk about: coding.”
Despite attending schools that are deliberate in how they integrate technology into instruction and into the campus environment, like most of her coding friends, none of Leslie’s introduction into coding occurred through school.
So, I asked her to share some ideas for ways schools can encourage students, especially girls, in STEM and technology. Her first response? “It’s not as hard as people think.” Following are her suggestions along with others.
Naturally, the top strategy is to provide computer science courses and lessons. And there are additional strategies schools can use to support girls inside and outside of the content classroom.
Provide after-school clubs, like robotics and coding, and ask the students what they want to do. Have separate clubs for girls and boys as their approaches are so different and both need to be nourished, particularly in adolescence. Leslie described: “There was a robotics club, but I saw the picture in the yearbook, and it was all boys. So, I didn’t join, because guys always try to be the head person and try to show off a little bit. And girls don’t do that, especially around other girls, because they don’t want to take over. We want everybody to be included.” Other girls in her coding club had such stories of being pushed to the side. The collaborative and problem-solving nature of coding is key draw for girls (GSUSA, 2012).
“I think coding is something to start when you’re young, because with your young big imagination, you can create anything that pops into your head!” – Leslie
Leslie urged, “don’t give up on an all-girls club just because nobody shows up the first day. A couple of girls will show up and then more and more will come once they hear that girls are actually going.”
It’s important to note that the tendency of some students to show off and be in front has value and needs just as much nurturing and guidance. And complying with constitutional, Title IX and other regulatory requirements means schools should be wary of separating students by gender in school classrooms. If your after-school tech club is not intentionally single gender but only has participation by one group, there is a reason, and it needs attention to ensure equal access and treatment.
Recognize that there are distinct types of technology interests students may want to try out. For example, robotics is very different from coding. “The code they use in robotics club is really simple,” Leslie stated. “There need to be more coding opportunities for girls especially but also for boys. When you code, even if you are really experienced, you can’t ever get the code right the first time. It’s impossible… But you can make anything, whatever you want to create. That’s why I love it.”
And some students really like tinkering with the insides of computers. These students can practice leadership by assisting teachers with setting up equipment and troubleshooting, with guidance from a campus technology specialist.
Some students love to be on competition teams for math, science, robotics, etc. Others just want the opportunity to hang out with other self-described “nerds.” Leslie’s Rubik’s Cube group meets twice a month with a classroom teacher who is genuinely interested. It also happens to be a good opportunity for her to hear students’ perspectives about tech careers and their interests.
It’s critical to make sure that there is access to technology in the classroom that is not dependent on students having their own devices. With this access in content classes, give students opportunities to create technology projects and be sure to celebrate their innovations. Recognize when they take a risk creatively. This is a great opportunity to use project-based learning. Such projects promote girls’ interest in the process of learning, asking questions, doing hands-on activities and problem solving (GSUSA, 2012).
For example, Leslie’s eighth grade English class was given the assignment to create a project about their literature circle novel. The options included things like poems, posters and essays. Leslie chose the “technology” box, which usually means PowerPoint. But she saw it as an opportunity to code a video game from scratch to analyze her book, I am David. She was thrilled that she was coding for an actual school assignment.
Give students opportunities to meet and work with adults of both genders in technology careers. Look for opportunities in the community and encourage students to participate. This has to be in addition to the annual career day. The Girl Scouts study shows the critical importance of exposure to STEM careers and adult support (2012).
The study also suggests that, given that girls interested in STEM have a desire to be in careers that help people (94 percent) and make a difference in the world (92 percent), there is opportunity in making the connection between those motivations and related STEM fields (GSUSA, 2012). “In She Code Connect, we learn to code, we teach other girls to code and we meet women in technology-based careers,” Leslie described.
She added, “When I started to learn coding, I could compare myself to older people who were good at this and realize, I’m really good at this too.” How many more girls are poised to make such a discovery about themselves? Let’s not make it hard.
Girl Scouts of the USA. (2012). Generation STEM – What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (New York, N.Y.: Girl Scout Research Institute).
Google Inc. & Gallup Inc. (2016). Trends in the State of Computer Science in U.S. K-12 Schools (Mountain View, Calif.: Google).
Kessler, S. (March 2017). “You Probably Should have Majored in Computer Science,” Quartz.
Merrill, S. (December 7, 2017). “The Future of Coding in Schools,” Edutopia.
Mosbrucker, K. (February 1, 2016). “San Antonio coding program gets nod from White House,” San Antonio Business Journal.
Youth Code Jam. https://www.youthcodejam.org.
Christie L. Goodman, APR, is IDRA’s Director of Communications. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2018, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2018 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]